Does It Matter Who Funds You?

What do the American IRS and British parliament have in common? Both are beginning to look closely at think tanks amid concerns that hidden political financing and clandestine lobbying sometimes cloak themselves in the mantle of non-partisan policy research. Our new bibliography on think tank funding released today shows that think tanks’ non-profit status and associated tax and donor confidentiality privileges may have attracted a few sharks to the pool – and the pool wardens are following in their wake.

Most commentators focus on the influence of ‘big money’ on the policy landscape. However, our compilation of media stories shows that government bodies and trade unions are also thought to have vested interests that may influence the policy recommendations provided by the think tanks they fund. Some governments have apparently formed proxy “phantom think tanks” that are independent only in name.

To what extent do think tanks play the tunes ordered by their paymasters? Do some think tanks really sell policy prescriptions for cash? Or are there more subtle influences at work, like self-censorship by individual policy wonks who want to hold on to their jobs? Or is there in fact no problem at all, because donors throw coins only into the hats of those pipers whose tunes they like listening to anyway? At least one think tanker claims that donors tend to choose think tanks that hold views similar to their own, effectively arguing that their influence is limited to amplifying some of the music already being played – the musicians need not compromise.

Some observers worry especially about funders that are based abroad. If some Americans raise the alarm about the influence that donations to think tanks from foreign governments might buy inside the mighty US, what about the influence that US money could buy overseas? It’s worth remembering that in many developing countries much – if not most – think tank funding comes from foreign sources. For example, think tanks in poor landlocked Nepal are so heavily dependent on foreign donors that they reportedly “find themselves compromising their goals” in order to survive financially. But are domestic donors really preferable to foreign ones? Some Latin American think tanks reportedly feel that embracing foreign money leaves them with more independence than accepting funds from their own governments would do…

What do you think? Does it matter who funds your work? Or are other factors more important in safeguarding the independence and quality of think tanks’ policy analysis? Post a comment below. 

For your reference, our summary of the debate on think tank funding is here.